GOMA, Zaire — After three weeks hiking through thick jungle and across jagged lava fields, Misti Bihirimati and hundreds of other hungry and exhausted refugees straggled into this beleaguered border town Thursday.
But his plea for help was for those left behind in the Zairian interior.
"There are many people in the mountains without food," the 43-year-old Hutu said. "They are very tired. And many are dying."
The question is how many--and where? But the answers are politically charged and far from clear.
The issue will be critical to military commanders from the United States and 13 other nations who will meet today in Stuttgart, Germany. They must decide what role a multinational force can and should play to assist the refugees still in Zaire as well as those who have returned home to Rwanda after more than two years in exile.
Among the options being considered are a limited deployment of combat soldiers to escort and protect aid convoys into war-torn eastern Zaire or a smaller operation to airlift food and other relief supplies to Rwanda from abroad.
But there is an information vacuum. No one ever counted the refugees who lived for two years in about 40 camps in eastern Zaire, or tallied how many have recently returned to Rwanda. And a dispute erupted over claims Thursday by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees that about 700,000 refugees have been located by evaluating photographs from Western spy satellites and reconnaissance aircraft.
The Clinton administration is backing Rwanda's Tutsi-led government, which insists that no such large refugee groups have been clearly identified and that most Hutu refugees have already returned to Rwanda.
The U.S. ambassador to Rwanda, Robert Gribbin, said in an interview Thursday with the British Broadcasting Corp.: "I'm of the view that the bulk of the refugees in Zaire who wanted to come home have come home."
In Geneva, however, the U.N. refugee agency announced that 700,000 refugees, driven from the camps more than a month ago by fighting between Tutsi rebels and Zairian troops, had been found in large groups scattered across hundreds of miles of inhospitable terrain in eastern Zaire.
A spokeswoman for the agency, Melita Sunjic, said about 50,000 refugees were spotted about 12 miles west of Masisi, 30 miles northwest of Goma, and about 100,000 were north of Sake, both in North Kivu province. In South Kivu province, she said, about 200,000 refugees were 45 miles north of the border town of Bukavu, about 250,000 were 45 miles south of Bukavu and about 100,000 were in Fizi, 60 miles south of Uvira.
That information appeared to conflict with separate reports here, mostly from the same U.N. agency, that described hordes of refugees pushing north along Lake Kivu toward Goma, and even larger groups foraging and plundering from between 90 and 210 miles west of Bukavu.
The U.S. has used satellites and overflights by U.S. aircraft to search for the refugees. Rebel-controlled antiaircraft guns fired on one such flight over Goma on Wednesday. Although the P-3 Orion was not hit, the U.S. on Thursday suspended the flights indefinitely.
U.S. officials say it is impossible to determine from aerial photographs if the encampments are Rwandan refugees, retreating Hutu militia members and soldiers from Rwanda's former Hutu-led regime, or even if they are local Zairians displaced by clashes in the area.
One diplomat in Kigali, Rwanda's capital, accused the United Nations of hyping its figures to gain support before the Stuttgart meeting.
"If the U.N. couldn't count the refugees in the camps, how are they supposed to do it from the air?" asked the diplomat, who requested anonymity.
Part of the dispute is basic arithmetic. The U.N. refugee agency and most aid groups insist that 1.2 million Rwandan refugees fled into eastern Zaire in 1994 and have been fed and sheltered ever since in a string of squalid camps there.
The U.N. estimates that half a million refugees unexpectedly returned to Rwanda beginning a week ago after fighting erupted around camps near Goma, capital of North Kivu province. That left 700,000 people ostensibly unaccounted for, mostly from camps in South Kivu.
But Rwandan and U.S. officials vehemently dispute those calculations. They say no census of the camps was ever completed and that the U.N. figures are inflated.
A more realistic estimate of the refugee camps' former population, they say, is less than 800,000.
The U.N. estimates were compiled after food distribution cards were issued to each refugee family in January 1995. But U.N. officials have acknowledged that camp leaders inflated family sizes to get more aid, some of which later was sold to purchase weapons.
Rwandan and U.S. officials now also insist that about 600,000 refugees have returned to Rwanda, including many from South Kivu.
They say the majority of the rest are Hutu militia members and former soldiers, plus their families, who took part in Rwanda's 1994 genocidal slaughter of Tutsis and moderate Hutus. These exiles are not expected to ever return home.